Ruth Bader Ginsburg has recently made the headlines by commenting on Donald Trump’s run for president. Her first comments seemed somewhat reluctant and unplanned:
I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president […] For the country, it could be four years. For the court, it could be — I don’t even want to contemplate that.
Later comments were much more direct:
He is a faker […] He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego. … How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns? The press seems to be very gentle with him on that.
Trump’s response was somewhat expectable—he called her “incompetent”, her comments “dumb”, and for good measure added that she should resign. But Ginsburg didn’t merely draw Trump’s disapproval. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post published op-eds calling Ginsburg’s comments inappropriate. The Washington Post argued:
Politicization, real or perceived, undermines public faith in the impartiality of the courts. […] As journalists, we generally favor more openness and disclosure from public figures rather than less. Yet Justice Ginsburg’s off-the-cuff remarks about the campaign fall into that limited category of candor that we can’t admire, because it’s inconsistent with her function in our democratic system.
The New York Times added that
[It is] baffling that Justice Ginsburg would choose to descend toward [Trump’s] level and call her own commitment to impartiality into question. Washington is more than partisan enough without the spectacle of a Supreme Court justice flinging herself into the mosh pit.
The basic idea behind both op-eds is that judges should stay neutral on political matters. But is there such a duty? And what could justify it? This is clearly an interesting issue to which one would expect philosophers to contribute something. My hopes are a bit more moderate: to provide a brief review of what others have written about Ginsburg’s comments, and to order some of the comments made in a philosophically interesting way.